Monday, October 17, 2005

Roman Polanski makes a movie called Oliver Twist that is really about the greatness of Oliver Reed

There are no young adults in Roman Polanski's new version of Oliver Twist.

There are children, a few teenagers---including, interestingly, the prostitutes Nancy and Bet---everybody else is either deep into a hard middle age or very old. Even the policemen are elderly, as if 50 was the minimum age at which a man could be considered for the job.

The 12 year old and I went to see it last night. He liked it. I was alternately bemused, baffled, amused, and caught up in it and entertained. I'll probably write a review later. Right now I'm interested in the effect of the film's strange age-ism.

I don't know where Polanski was going with this, if he was going anywhere. Maybe he was trying to make a point about the harshness of life in early Victorian England: It robbed people of their youth and made them old almost before they stopped being children. It's a big change from Dickens' novel, though, which while it has at its center a child and the tug of war over his soul between two old men, Fagin and Mr Brownlow, is full of youth. Besides Nancy, who is probably no more than 19, but a 19th Century 19, a grownup, not like the movie's 21st Century 16 or 17 year old Nancy, who is a child forced by Fate and circumstance to act like a grownup, there are the young lovers Harry and Rose, Oliver's villainous step-brother Monks, and, hovering above it all and haunting every scene and shining out through the eyes of her orphaned son, the ghost of Oliver's young mother.

And then there is Bill Sikes.

Polanski dispenses with the subplots involving Harry and Rose---removing from the story an active hero and heroine and with them, well, activity, not to mention youth and beauty---and Monks' attempts to rob Oliver of his inheritance. Oliver's mother is completely forgotten, except as a plot point in one scene, which is not the scene of Oliver's birth; the movie begins with Oliver already 9 and being delivered to the workhouse by Mr Bumble. Every other adaptation of Oliver Twist begins with Oliver's mother dragging herself up to the gates of the workhouse on the night Oliver is born, and I guess Polanski wanted his movie to be different, although the strikingly different opening turns out to be about the only striking variation from the book or other adaptations.

But there are reasons all the others begin with that scene, besides the fact that that's how the novel starts and it's an excuse to cast another pretty young actress.

The main one being that the whole rest of the story is the struggle to finish that young woman's act of heroism and see that her child is delivered safely into the world. Just getting his body born doesn't do it.

So Oliver's mother's gone, Monks is gone, Harry and Rose are gone, and Nancy is regressed to a child-woman, which is interesting in its historical implications but, considering the reason Roman Polanski isn't making movies in the United States anymore, also a bit creepy.

Which leaves Bill Sikes.

Polanski's made him middle-aged---and short. He's cast Jamie Foreman as Sikes and Foreman is pushing 50 and looks it. Life as a thief has been hard on him, worn him to a frazzle, in fact. He looks ready for the Old Thugs' Retirement Home and in a number of scenes he looks shurnken, shriveled, and wasting away before our eyes, ready to pull back into his coat like a turtle and leave his hat sitting on top of his collar.

In the novel, Sikes occupies the place of a hero. He's active, skillful, intelligent, adventurous, bold, brave, and driven by a personal code, not of honor, by any means, but a code of manly pride, at least. He's a bad guy, dangerous, bloody-minded, vicious, and heartless. He cares only for himself and whatever tender feelings he has for Nancy---and he has some---are based entirely on how well she cares for him. He's a villain, but you can see why in the world of the thieves he's looked up to as heroic. In fact, he even takes on the role of a true hero, temporarily, and late in the novel, after he's murdered Nancy and when he's wandering the countryside discovering he still has a conscience---he joins a crowd fighting a fire and dashes in and out of the burning house several times to rescue people trapped inside.

We can see why the Dodger and Charlie Bates admire him and want to grow up to be like him, and we can see that Oliver, with all his virtues perverted, will become a Bill Sikes himself, if he's not rescued from Fagin.

Jamie Foreman isn't bad as Sikes, and he's not as ridiculous in the part as Tim Curry was in a TV adaptation I saw a long time ago. It was silly to have Curry, still famous only for playing Dr Frank N. Furter in Rocky Horror Picture Show, looking up a full foot to scowl menacingly at George C. Scott's Fagin, who acted frightened but who looked as though if he put a thumb on the top of Curry's head could drive him down into the floor like a tack.

Foreman's not the least bit heroic. He's just a run of the mill thug. And he's not at all imposing. It's hard to see how he could scare anybody, even Nancy and the boys. He keeps Nancy in line by waving his club and threatening to sic his dog on her, but it's clear that in a fair fight she could hold her own against him, and late in the movie the Artful Dodger tackles him, knocks him to the ground, and pummels him pretty good before Sikes is able to roll out from underneath him and Fagin pulls the Dodger away.

In short, there is no reason in the world for Nancy to have devoted her life to the man. It's possible she'd be too scared to leave him. But a hundred other guys in her circle could easily take her away from this Sikes and do for him good if he put up a fuss about it.

(Also, allowing a 30 year age difference between his pair of lovers was probably not the most self-aware casting call Polanski could have made.)

Foreman's bringing nothing special to the part, and taking a lot away from it to boot, makes Polanski's choosing him for it a very strange decision. It's made stranger by the casting of Mark Strong as Sikes' sometime partner in housebreaking, Toby Crackitt. Strong is made comically villainous by a Bozo-esque mop of red hair and a silly set of false teeth, appropriate for the pretentious and vain Flash Toby. But I've seen Strong without makeup and playing the role of a heroic villain. He's tall, dark, charismatic and menacingly sexy, and a youthful looking 42 as opposed to Foreman's severely weathered 47. Which means that Polanski looked at Strong, looked at Foreman, and, what, didn't see the difference? It's almost as though what happened was that he cast Strong as Sikes and Foreman as Crackitt and things got all mixed up in the dressing room and they came out wearing each other's costumes, at which point the assitant director just shrugged and said, "Too late to fix it. Camera's rolling," and hustled them out onto the set where Polanski failed to spot the impromptu role swap.

But as I was watching the movie, I wasn't thinking of what it would have been like if Strong had played the part. I was thinking of what it was like when Oliver Reed did it.

The movie version of the musical Oliver! is pretty good. A little too sunny and clean, and having a cute, cuddly Fagin raises thematic problems that are never dealt with in a satisfying way---life among Fagin's boys is meant to appear to Oliver to be a lot more jolly and secure than life in the workhouse, but it shouldn't appear to be a whole lot more jolly and attractive to the audience than life with Mr Brownlow. But the songs are good, the acting's excellent---particularly Jack Wild as the Dodger and Ron Moody as Fagin.

And then there's Oliver Reed's Sikes.

Reed was 30 at the time and his drinking hadn't begun to show on him at all. (The Siren took a look at the effect of hard living on the faces and careers of a number of great British actors, including Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed.) He wasn't just handsome. He was close to beautiful, in a dark, dangerous, brooding way. And when Nancy sings that she would stick with him as long as he needs her, you understand why. You understand why this Sikes would make a girl sing. And you understand why she'd give her life for him rather than live without him.

And you understand why she is absolutely terrified of him.

Foreman's Sikes yells all the time. Reed's Sikes' practically whispers his whole way through the film. Yet there is far more menace in a single glance from Reed than in all of Foreman's fist-waving and club pounding, kicking and screaming.

To me, Reed always came across as the most dangerous man alive. This made him awfully difficult to cast well. He was too handsome and heroic looking to play your average movie villain, and too goddamn full of barely repressed violence and rage to play an appealing hero. His two best roles were, therefore, Sikes, the villain who could have been a hero, and Athos in The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, a hero who's as callous, bloody-minded, and deadly as any villain, and who in one way goes even farther than Sikes in awfulness---Sikes beats the woman who loves him to death and then is haunted by his conscience; Athos coolly orders the woman he loves executed and then watches without a twinge as she's rowed out into the middle of a lake, beheaded, and dumped into the water.

And given Reed's performance up to that point, it comes as no surprise that he can do this. One of my favorite scenes among all my favorite scenes in all my favorite movies is in The Four Musketteers when Reed's Athos confronts Faye Dunaway's Milady de Winter and promises that he will kill her if she continues to plot against D'Artagnan. He is so deadly serious and at the same time so compelling that Dunaway is driven to playing actual passion for once---she is swooning with desire as well as fear, and almost gives the impression that if he were to pull the trigger on the pistol he's pointing at her at the moment she would welcome it and die having an orgasm. That's all Reed's doing. He could make looking at a woman an act of rape.

Late in his career, Reed showed he could have been a great character actor. I loved him as Captain Billy Bones in a TV movie of Treasure Island that starred Charlton Heston and a very young Christian Bale. But that was another part that mixed up heroism with villainy. You could see that before rum and illness took hold of him, Billy Bones was a pirate to be reckoned with and even admired, like two other movie pirates who also always insist on being called Captain, Peter Blood and Jack Sparrow.

This is why I have always thought that somebody missed a bet, and Reed missed out on the role he was born for, when Roger Moore was cast to replace Sean Connery as James Bond.

Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Bronson played Bond as a smoothie who had learned to be a thug when he had to be. Bronson plays Bond as if he's tortured by this. Dalton played him as corrupted by it. Moore, making a wise choice, played it as just a bother.

But Connery's bond was a thug who had learned how to be a smoothie. Giving him a license to kill was just accepting ahead of time the inevitable result of any job he was sent on. And that's how I think Reed would have played it.

Which ends what I have to say about Bill Sikes and Oliver Reed and brings up the new James Bond.

I was convinced that Clive Owen would replace Brosnan in the part. I picked him out for it when I saw him in Gosford Park. He was riveting. And suitably suave and dangerous. Another thug who'd learned to be a smoothie. I have a good track record for picking out James Bonds too. While Moore was still doing the movies, I predicted Timothy Dalton would be next and that Pierce Brosnan would follow him. I did so! Ask the blonde.

I did not and would not have predicted Daniel Craig.

Who is this guy?

He looks as if somebody in the James Bond franchise office said, "You know what would be a funny change? If we made Bond look like one of those English professors freshman girls swoon over him when he recites poetry but who turns out to be absolutely devoted to his wife."

Ah well.

Maybe he'll be this century's George Lazenby. One Bond and he's out.

On the other hand, he tested well.

And he's got to be better than two other actors I read were seriously considered for and considering playing Bond.

Jude Law.

And Ewan McGregor.

"The name's Kenobi. Obi-wan Kenobi."

Then again, maybe McGregor could have pulled it off, too short for Bond as he is.

The most interesting thing in the final two Star Wars movies was the suggestion that when he didn't have to drag Anakin around with him, Obi-wan was leading the life of a Jedi Philip Marlowe.

But that's another post.


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